India is a country of immense heritage and rich history. And the lush green southern state of Kerala is no different, infact the vast cultural heritage that we have in store in this God’s Own Country never ceases to amaze me. Kerala is one of the top 50 destinations of the world according to the National Geographic and I feel rightly so. But I think sometimes we tend to overlook these riches.
One such place is the Sri Chitra Art Gallery in the capital city, Thiruvananthapuram nee Trivandrum. This art gallery is housed in the famous museum compound, one of the major landmarks of the city. The museum compound has the famous Napier’s Museum, another jewel in the capital’s crown, the reptile museum and is also a part of the Trivandrum zoo. And eventhough this art gallery which houses the paintings of the great artist Raja Ravi Varma is in the heart of the city not many locals come to take a peek at it. The art gallery is viewed more by tourists than the locals but for me it is one of the favourite places in the city.
In this God’s own country, a prince was born in Kilimanoor Palace as the son of Umamba Thampuratty and Neelakantan Bhattathiripad on April 29th 1848. He later grew up to become the greatest artist of all times, Raja Ravi Varma. This prince as a young boy of seven started painting using charcoal and I am sure no one at the time would have realized just how famous he would become or how a must have his paintings would become in the modern world. During his time it was not a profession chosen by the royals, but seeing the young talent his uncle Raja Raja Varma brought him to the capital city and arranged a teacher for him at the age of fourteen to learn oil painting. He honed his skills in the later years in Mysore, Baroda and other parts of the country. He learned the traditional art of Thanjavoor and then the European art. His paintings can be broadly classified into portraits, portrait based compositions and compositions based on legends and mythology. But whatever kind they are he has really excelled in his art.
Usually art is a subject loved by an artist or an art lover. But I feel you need to be neither to enjoy the Ravi Varma paintings. As a casual visitor or tourist you can never envision the treasure you will find inside the Sri Chitra Art Gallery. But as soon as you enter the art gallery, you are transported into an ethereal world. It is a world of old world charm and of ancient characters. His paintings are full of life and you would feel they are just going to speak to you. Sometimes I feel if I look close enough I can see beyond the point in the painting. All the characters in his paintings are so simple; some are portraits and some are based on the Hindu mythology. But I always feel so amazed at the minute details in his paintings whether it is the expression on their faces, their clothes or their jewellery.
The beauty of the female characters in his paintings became the models for today’s cinematic beauties. They were painted both as seductresses and also like pure untouched beauties. His famous “Milk Maid” painting is my all time favourite and this milk maid comes in the later category of ethereal beauty. At the same time his “Gypsies of South India” brings so much of tenderness in you that you feel like touching those children to just encourage them to carry on in life. His paintings on mythology all bring to life the stories I have read as a child and now his characters have taken shapes of all those mythological characters in my mind.
Today for the people of Kerala these paintings are a heritage proud to be and if possible a must have in your homes. He is an artist surpassed by none in the Indian art history. So I hope we will treasure these gems for the generations to enjoy them in the centuries to come because he is a link between the traditional and the modern India.